Scientists Claim Nuclear Fusion in Tabletop Test
Thursday, April 28, 2005
LOS ANGELES -- In the latest attempt to create nuclear fusion under laboratory conditions, scientists reported they achieved it in a tabletop experiment that uses a strong electric field generated by a small crystal.
While the energy created was too small to harness cheap fusion power, this new way of making nuclear fusion could have potential uses in the oil-drilling industry and homeland security, said Seth J. Putterman, a physicist at the University of California at Los Angeles, who conducted the study.
The experiment is reported Thursday in the journal Nature.
For decades, scientists have sought to produce controllable nuclear fusion, the power that lights the sun. Fusion power has been promoted as the ultimate solution to the world's energy needs and a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels such as coal and oil, but even investigating potential ways of generating it requires enormous reactors that cost millions of dollars.
Claims of tabletop fusion have been met with skepticism.
In one of the most notable cases, B. Stanley Pons of the University of Utah and Martin Fleischmann of Southampton University in England shocked the world in 1989 when they announced they had achieved so-called cold fusion at room temperature. Their work was discredited after repeated unsuccessful attempts to reproduce it.
Fusion experts said the UCLA experiment was credible because, unlike the 1989 work, it did not violate basic principles of physics.
"This doesn't have any controversy in it because they're using a tried-and-true method," said David Ruzic, professor of nuclear and plasma engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "There's no mystery in terms of the physics."
In fusion, light atoms are joined in a high-temperature process that frees large amounts of energy. Fusion produces virtually no air pollution and does not pose the safety and long-term radioactive waste concerns raised by modern nuclear power plants, where heavy uranium atoms are split to create energy in a process known as nuclear fission.
In the UCLA experiment, scientists placed a tiny crystal that can generate a strong electric field into a vacuum chamber filled with deuterium gas, a form of hydrogen. Then the researchers activated the crystal by heating it.
The reaction gave off an isotope of helium along with neutrons, subatomic particles that are released in fusion reactions. The experiment did not, however, produce more energy than was put in, an achievement that would be a breakthrough.
Putterman said future experiments will focus on refining the technique for potential commercial uses, including designing portable neutron generators that could be used for oil-well drilling or scanning luggage and cargo at airports.